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Immigrant Crime Victims Seeking Special Visas Find a Tough Path

9 Mar

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio made it clear in January: New York State and New York City were stepping up efforts to protect some of the most vulnerable immigrants from deportation.

Undocumented immigrants who are victims of crime and cooperate with law enforcement would have more avenues to apply for special visas that let them stay in the country and work legally.

But the fanfare masked just how difficult it is to get one of the visas — as one woman from Honduras can attest.

Yoselin, 31, seemingly did everything right when all went wrong for her. She reported domestic violence to the police in Freeport, N.Y., on Long Island, last fall. But she and her advocates say they ran into a series of roadblocks: police prejudice, ignorance of the law on the part of court officials, limited resources from their own organization and suspicion from the authorities that she was trying to get a free pass to stay in the United States by seeking what is known as a U visa.

The legislation granting visas to victims of certain crimes has been in place since 2000, but the agencies that can certify their eligibility vary by county and state. For a victim to qualify, certifying agencies must confirm that the criminal act is on a prescribed list and that the victim was helpful in assisting the police. If approved by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, the visas permit crime victims to stay and work in the country up to four years, and to apply for permanent residency.

“This isn’t some backdoor, it isn’t a loophole, it is one of the few forms of humanitarian relief that Congress has put out there to help victims of serious crimes,” said Theodor S. Liebmann, a professor of immigration law at Hofstra University.

In his State of the State address, Mr. Cuomo announced that the Division of Human Rights and the State Police would certify visas for certain crimes, joining the State Labor Department. Mr. de Blasio then announced he was expanding the city’s visa certification policy to include the city’s Commission on Human Rights.

The New York Police Department said its Domestic Violence Unit certified 152 U visas in 2015 out of 580 applications. Amid pressure from advocates, the department proposed rule changes last summer that would establish clearer protocols for its certification process.

There is also a logjam at the highest level of the program: The federal government caps U visas at 10,000 a year. As of September, there were nearly 64,000 applications pending — a backlog of six to seven years. During that time some applicants are granted temporary protection from deportation.

“The federal government needs to address the backlog because it’s just massive,” said Carmen Maria Rey, the deputy director of the Immigration Intervention Project for Sanctuary for Families, a New York nonprofit that handles 400 U visa cases a year. “With an increase in certification, we’re not going to see a decrease in U filings.”

Yoselin fled Honduras in 2012. She said she was harassed by her superiors at work there when they found out she was H.I.V.-positive.

After arriving in New York, she filed for asylum, fearing that the persecution based on her H.I.V. status would continue and that the government would not protect her. Since April 2013, Yoselin has been working with a legal team at Immigration Equality, a nonprofit organization representing lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and H.I.V.-positive clients.

She began a relationship with a fellow immigrant after February 2015, when they were both renting rooms in the ground floor of a house in Freeport.

In September, Yoselin had just returned home from having emergency surgery on her gallbladder and pancreas when, she said, she saw the man there, high. According to a restraining order, when she told him she was calling the police, he said he would kill her and her unborn baby.

When officers responded, she said she felt they played down her account. “They said, ‘This is very common among Latinos,’” she recalled. “‘It’s just a fight; you’ll make up and be happy.’”

After a subsequent encounter with her former boyfriend, when he pushed her aggressively, she said, her lawyers said she went into preterm labor and was taken to a hospital. She filed two police reports, but the police did not find probable cause to arrest the man.

Her advocate, Laura Rodríguez, a fellow with the Immigrant Justice Corps, said she placed several calls to Detective Michael Pomerico of the Freeport Police Department regarding Yoselin’s safety and the status of the case. Ms. Rodríguez said that when she asked in late October about certifying her cooperation, Detective Pomerico referred to her previous calls as a calculated attempt to get “this visa thing.”

The department declined to discuss Yoselin’s account.

According to a Freeport law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to discuss legal matters, “a large majority of officers” do not know what a U visa is.

That is despite the fact that Nassau County, where Freeport is, has been calling attention to visa certifications as a crime-fighting method. The county district attorney’s office recently formed a unit to encourage immigrant crime victims to come forward to the police, despite fears about their legal status.

In November, Yoselin was hospitalized for a week in a psychiatric ward because of the emotional stress of the abuse, she said. She lost her job that week and was evicted from her home.

Immigration Equality, which has just five lawyers on staff, decided that it did not have the resources to pursue a U visa that might take years to come through. “We decided to spend our time and resources preparing for her pending asylum case,” said Pamela Denzer, who is accredited to work immigration cases.

That is not uncommon, said Camille Mackler, legal director for the New York Immigration Coalition, which oversees immigrant advocacy groups. “The problem is that U visas are not simple applications — there’s a lot of legal strategy,” Ms. Mackler said. “There aren’t enough lawyers, and there’s not enough funding for lawyers.”

Yoselin’s next court appearance, when she will set up a future hearing on her asylum claim, is in August. As she negotiates her way through the immigration system, she has one certainty in her life: Her son, Gabriel Isaiah, born on Feb. 24, is a United States citizen.